Stories of O: Oprah's Culture Industries

Curator's Note

“Why do Americans care so much about Oprah,” is a question I hear with surprising regularity. A more precise question is, how does Oprah get people to care about her? In both constructions “care” is the operative. Care can denote attention to paid to Oprah, her show, and her actions. Care can signify disdain for blackness, femaleness, or class status implicit in tone as in “Why do Americans care what Oprah thinks?” This disdain requires its own interrogation. Care also stands for respect and reverence. In each instance, “Oprah” is imbued with flexible meaning. As I note in the introduction to Stories of Oprah: the Oprahfication of American Culture (University of Mississippi Press, 2010), regardless of one’s personal feelings about Oprah Winfrey, we must be quite specific in which Oprah we’re discussing. As many are aware, Oprah, the woman, has cultural reach across many aspects of production, distribution, and consumption. We should consider the designation “Oprah” more than a brand, but also a culture industry in itself: television, radio, magazines, world wide web, films, and publishing are all media marked by Oprah-ness. The accompanying clip from Scrubs states the obvious by speaking to the omnipresence of Oprah. Despite playing herself in a number of televisions shows, Oprah is name-checked in an endless array of sitcoms, films, news reports, and product endorsements. She has such attained a level of brand recognition that we rarely question, exactly what is the Oprah product? Rusty and Danny can barely fathom her power, but succumb to it in Ocean's 13. The contributors to this theme week on Oprah move beyond the omnipresence and question the assumed omnipotence of Oprah Winfrey’s message and culture industries. Oprah is never out of the news, as a daily Google News Alert attests. And, yet, with the announcement of the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, what Oprah will do next is a frequent topic of speculation in the media. To continue to rephrase the question, not only what will Oprah do next, but how will the Oprah culture industry function if the place where she started (syndicated network television) is no longer her main point of entry into American lives?


Thanks for an interesting start to the week, Kimberly. As someone who studies the cultural logics of intellectual property law, I found this clip fascinating precisely because the aspect least appreciated about the Oprah empire is JD's "copyright infringement" of Oprah's voice (though, technically it is parody and, as Nancy Sinatra once discovered, sound-alikes are not necessarily copyright violations).

I like how you've challenged the notion that Oprah is a brand.  Indeed, the term hardly encompasses the extraordinary reach of both the woman, Oprah Gail Winfrey, and her media holdings.  Personally, though, I don't find the term "culture industry" to be such useful a descriptor of the Oprah phenomenon either, given its connotations of manipulativeness and philistinism.

Lately I've been referring to Oprah in some of my own writings using a term I've borrowed from the tech industry, platform, which refers to a generative system governed by its own internal logic, rules, and values.  To me it speaks to the promiscuity, fecundity, and specificty of the Oprah phenomenon, which now encompasses everything from dog training systems (via Caesar the Dog Whsiperer) to book clubs, TV shows, magazines, movies, and much, much more.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this week's IMR unfolds.  Thanks for taking up the topic.

Both clips are good illustrations of Winfrey's omnipresence. She has become such a pervasive figure in U.S. popular culture that she can function in a narrative as a shorthand way of conveying information about characters without having to spell it out in exposition. The Scrubs piece represents the very common and cliched use of "Oprah" as a gender marker--women love her, and men who want to score points (or just score) with women, pretend to love her. Such assumptions are founded on and validate the most vapid, utterly conventional conceptions of gender and gender relations. The Ocean's 13 clip, where the two men tear up as Winfrey shines her beneficence on some "deserving" poor people, illustrates another facet of Winfrey's ideological power: the legitimization of the privatization of compassion that Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, in Better Living Through Reality TV (2008),  identify as an key element of "charity TV"


Thanks, Avi, Ted, and Janice for the insights and references. All provide interesting new pathways for investigation, which in the Oprah-verse, seem endless.

@Avi: I'd noted the voice, in this clip and another Scrubs clip, but not thought about the ways the clip dodges the proprietary issues except for the voice.

@Janice: I think it's that banality that I find most insidious. Teaching Oprah material to UK students, it's always telling to watch their reactions to her. I experience...I'll call it an Americanist/nationalist dissonance: is Oprah as "crazy" as she sounds or is it a non-US snobbery or jealousy? That may be why I return to meaning making and perhaps want to run to ethnography of Oprah consumers for shelter.

 @Ted: I'll need to sit with the platform concept because it's overshadowed by your very compelling notion of the Oprah brand as "producted." I keep returning to that idea, but then I think, hmmm, O/S Oprah...

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